Grad students research relationships

By Rosemary Cambell, Staff Writer

U graduate students are trying to find out how social factors affect rising blood pressure.

Wendy Birmingham and Michelle Skinner, psychology graduate research and teaching assistants, are researching how relationships and stress impact blood pressure and chronic back pain, two issues that many people deal with throughout their lives. The students are conducting studies that will hopefully help bring in more information to help treat these ailments.

Birmingham is studying the blood pressure of couples in which both individuals work either full time or part time. She wants to know when their blood pressure rises and falls depending on the strain of dealing with co-workers, bosses and then returning home to their spouses.

There have been previous studies done on what affects blood pressure, but Birmingham said her study is unique.

“We’re looking at whether (the) relationship quality affects (a person’s) blood pressure,” Birmingham said. “(And) what the marital relationship does to blood pressure without children or other people around.”

Birmingham said to qualify for the study, couples need to be legally married, working and childless with no one else living with them. The study is done with each participant over the course of one day.

During the study, the couple comes in before work to pick up ambulatory monitors, which they wear throughout the day until about 10:30 p.m. The monitor checks the participant’s blood pressure twice an hour, which allows Birmingham to observe when the blood pressure rises and when it falls.

Birmingham said she feels this study is important in knowing how social relationships affect cardiovascular health. Her research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, which gave the psychology department a five-year research grant for studies specifically focusing on relationships.

She said she hopes to finish her research this spring after monitoring 90 couples, about half of which she has tested so far.

Skinner’s study about chronic back pain also deals with relationships. She wants to find how better to treat people with chronic pain by taking into account both individuals’ emotional and mental reactions to a situation.

“We can’t continue to treat people like they live alone…you need to look at the caretaker’s reactions, psychological, emotional and mental,” Skinner said. “If you don’t take those factors into account, you’re missing an important part (of the treatment).”

Skinner’s study requires a patient to fill out a questionnaire asking couples to provide information about how they cope with pain together and mail it back to her, after which they are reimbursed with $25.

“(Patients) get individualistic treatment,” Skinner said. “They may get relaxation and medical treatment, but then they go home to their spouse who is largely involved in the problem but won’t be having the same experiences.”

As Birmingham’s study does, Skinner’s research has certain criteria participants must meet. For example, volunteers must be older than 35, must be married or living with a partner for at least five years, one member of the couple needs to have chronic back pain and the individual cannot have other serious health problems.

Both Birmingham and Skinner feel their research studies will benefit the public by contributing more information to the research pool about the social aspects of health problems such as high blood pressure and chronic back pain.

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